WASHINGTON — A 75th birthday is a time to reflect on one's accomplishments.
Unless that one is Jacques Cousteau.
A man of many accomplishments, Cousteau showed humanity the world under the sea and invented the Aqua-lung, underwater living quarters and a wealth of other things. But the most famous explorer of modern times doesn't want to talk about all that. It is important, he said, "not to lose time looking backward."
Monday morning, the day after his huge 75th birthday bash at Mount Vernon where Hollywood and Washington celebrities jammed in to see him, Cousteau sat on board the Calypso, his famous exploration ship, and talked instead about his new projects. About the future.
No Retirement Plans
Retirement is not on the list.
"No, no, no, no. Shhhhhhh," replied Cousteau, his skin weathered and brown against his white turtleneck, his warmth washing over anyone near. His hair is pure white. There are large puffs under his eyes. But his spirit, his energy, are clearly apparent.
"As long as I can stand on my feet, I'll carry on," said Cousteau, who turned 75 on Tuesday. "I pray God to be switched off in action."
Cousteau has plenty of action scheduled in the near future: a five-year sail around the world with two ships--including his new "wind ship," powered by vertical "turbo-sails"; finishing his 66th book and taking a crack at writing a musical score. (He plays the accordion. In his spare time, no doubt.)
But his newest, biggest idea is something quite revolutionary, even for him.
After "many, many brainstorming sessions" with his family and friends on board the Calypso and around the world, Cousteau decided that nuclear destruction of his beloved planet can be averted in only one way: "the compulsory exchange of children at a relatively low age, 7 to 8 or 8 to 9," to live for one year with a family in an enemy country.
Compulsory. That means everybody.
"Millions, millions," said Cousteau, his French accent framing his words. "I mean all the children from 7 to 8.
"I don't see how a nation could press the button of those horrible things when they know that 3 million of their children are over there. I mean, the mothers would not tolerate that.
"We still need to work this project out much better with specialists, with psychologists, with specialists of children. But I have decided to spend the rest of my life on that project. It is my No. 1 priority."
He is serious.
Does Cousteau honestly expect to see this happen in his lifetime?
"I don't care," he said, smiling.
You don't care?
"No," he said. "The important thing is to act according to your conscience--and whether it's going to be successful or not, I do not care. I believe in this."
Cousteau has gone to the White House to have lunch with President Reagan, but he did not tell the President about his children-exchange idea.
"But we have talked about a lot of environmental projects," said Cousteau. "I knew him from when he was in California. The coastal development regulations originated under his governorship, and he is very proud of that. He claims that he is an environmentalist."
Cousteau laughs at that.
"Well, it is a strange way to be an environmentalist, I must say," he continued. "But it's true that in California he has done that. So I insisted on the fact that a number of his assistants in the environmental field were inadequate and thank God, two of them have gone since then."
Cousteau's life of environmental advocacy and underwater exploration seems to be almost a fantasy come true, roaming the world's oceans for adventure, touching land just long enough to lunch with Presidents and pick up Emmy awards. But his explorer's life has not been without sacrifice and tragedy.
At his birthday party at Mount Vernon, Cousteau made brief remarks in which he made a rare reference to the death of his son, Philippe, who died in a 1979 crash of Calypso's seaplane after a test flight over Lisbon. Cousteau wept as he noted to the 2,000 guests "the great absence tonight--Philippe."
Only days after Philippe was killed, his brother, Jean-Michel, left his home and his job in South Carolina and took over Philippe's duties as Cousteau's right hand man and vice president of the Cousteau Society. Jean-Michel surmises that Philippe's death did cause Cousteau to question his adventurous life style.
"I would say yes, of course. I saw him on the verge of giving up," said Jean-Michel. "He has such a hard time coping with it, because it is not a normal course of life to lose your children."
Jean-Michel said he doesn't really know what made Cousteau decide to continue with his life as an explorer. Cousteau rarely talks about Philippe's death to anyone.
"It's private," the elder Cousteau said.